GRAND RAPIDS — A Grand Valley State University student initiated a study of Michigan breast cancer patients that suggests routine mammography and self-breast exams continue for women ages 40-49 as important screening tools, despite recommendations from a national task force.

Daniel Smith, a physician assistant studies major, presented his team’s research as part of a panel discussion at the 2011 Breast Cancer Symposium in San Francisco on Sept. 8. While most of the presenters at the national meeting were practicing physicians, Smith was the only student not attending medical school to give a presentation.

Smith said he got the idea for the study while an undergraduate student at Grand Valley, taking a biomedical ethics class. At that time, his class discussed the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommendations that discouraged teaching self-breast exams and recommended that only women over 50 be offered routine mammograms.

“I thought that was rather a bold statement and knew I wanted to follow up on that,” he said. “The topic seemed very relevant, and once I was accepted into the PAS program I needed a research project to work on.”

For the study, Smith teamed with Theresa Bacon-Baguley, professor of PAS at Grand Valley; Dr. Jamie Caughran, Lacks Cancer Center in Grand Rapids; GVSU students Jennifer Kreinbrink and Grace Parish, and others from different medical organizations. Researchers used the Michigan Breast Oncology Quality Initiative, a breast cancer registry, to analyze data from patients who were diagnosed with breast cancer between the years of 2006-2009.

The registry, during that time frame, included nearly 6,000 patients. Of that number, 42.5 percent of patients under the age of 50 had detected breast cancer either through self-exam or mammography. According to Smith and Bacon-Baguley, the percentage of patients with breast cancer suggest that no longer teaching self-breast exams or recommending screening mammography has the potential to impact early detection.

Bacon-Baguley said the patients in the study with breast cancer that was detected at an earlier stage were more likely to undergo a less-aggressive surgical procedure and had a lower incidence of chemotherapy.

“Increasing the age of screening mammography from 40 to 50 may result in an initial presentation at a higher stage,” she said. “Cancers detected at a higher stage are more likely to require a more aggressive treatments, which could impact the quality of life of the patient.”

She added that this type of student-driven research was not uncommon at Grand Valley.

“This has turned out to be a great project for Grand Valley,” Bacon-Baguley said. “It’s a collaborative effort with other area institutions that will benefit women’s health.”


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